The way we experience maths in the classroom is not the way we experience maths in the world at large. In a classroom setting, maths is often stripped of context, reduced to a series of steps learnt by rote, and devoid of imagination.
Knitting has taught me so much about maths, and throughout part 1 and part 2 of this mini-series I’ve shown how it continues to do so. However, when I dig into my past to consider my relationship with numbers and how that’s shaped the person and designer I am, I find something else. I realise that, apart from memorising my times tables up to 12, my deepest and more formative experience with maths was during my music lessons at primary school.
For one, I was very lucky to have music lessons at my state school. (Non-UK folk, this basically means that my compulsory schooling was funded by the government and consequently there were no school fees. One implication of this having fewer resources available for creative and performing arts.) Each class or form group had a weekly music lesson, but extras were available if you consistently finished your work early, and break-time visits were sometimes possible.
This was incentive enough!
Music is a full-body experience, and every single one of my senses was engaged whilst in the music room. I can still smell the air, musty with old wood and the concentration of pupils past. I started learning about key signatures, time measures, note values, symbols, musical representation – and it was all embedded by the physical act of playing instruments and listening to the differences and similarities between the directions.
Music was a language of relationships, and I was adept at spotting patterns. Humans are good at that; we’re wired to look for connections. Magic such as the circle of fifths and how to find the relative minor of any major key (and vice versa) was fascinating in itself, but I see now that it was another way to be sure of the key if you couldn’t remember what the number of sharps or flats was telling you. There was always more than one way to learn what you needed to know.
Then, of course, there was playing the piano or guitar; hearing the language of music and how the relationships worked. How the piece made you feel; the dynamics, your interpretation as a musician. No two people will ever play a piece or sing a song in the same way; it is as much about what is written and intended as it is about your comprehension and delivery. Through understanding language, context and representation – and crucially, how those interrelationships are formed – you have the tools to compose your own work as well as perform that of others.
To my mind, knitting should work along similar lines, but that is not usually the case. We have context (sweater, shawl); we have language (charts, shorthand abbreviations); we have representation, or a clear connection between what we read and what we execute. What’s missing is the solid relationship – the mathematical link – between these things. Knitters understand what it takes for a pattern to work, but can be weaker on how and why. The how and why are more likely to be felt or intuited than rooted in solid understanding of the design’s inherent maths.
I still rely very heavily on my past music lessons for the mathematical side of knitwear design. Whenever I feel lost or overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I have to do to create a design and pattern from an idea, I remember that I have done something similar before. I try to treat myself kindly; I’m starting from square one each time. I remember that I need to let the connections reveal themselves, not make assumptions based on similarities that I think exist between the current project and past projects, or hypothesise too much.
I wrote this coda for all designers, makers, editors – anyone who produces original creative work in our beloved niche – in hopes of showing that life experience will always help you in some way. My knitwear design and maths journey is far from over, as you can see! Music is something that I keep coming back to for support with my design work – even if it is just to switch off and distract my mind – and I hope you have something in your life that does the same for you, too.